Connecting in Large Classes – Veronica Brown

When Mark Morton suggested this blog as a way to introduce myself, I struggled with what to write about. I considered telling you about myself (grew up in London, Ontario, have worked at UW since 1999, my favourite place in the world is my family’s cottage on an island in Georgian Bay, etc.). Then, I thought about telling you more about my teaching career (have taught introductory computer science and math courses, ranging in size from less than 20 to more than 500). To be honest, it all seemed a bit dry. So instead, I wanted to share with you a little bit about being connected to my students.

Before coming to CTE, I worked as an Instructional Support Coordinator, first with the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science then with the Professional Development Program (both at UW). As part of my role, I supervised several co-op students each term who worked as tutors or lab instructors for the courses I coordinated. During their orientation session, the co-ops and I completed an exercise together called “My Favourite TA”. Each of us answered six questions then shared our responses with the group. We needed to identify the course, whether we liked the course, how we interacted with the TA (e.g., tutorial, office hours, etc.), what we liked best, how he or she helped us understand the material, and why we thought this person was our favourite TA.

This exercise was used as an icebreaker for a training session on marking and consulting, two primary tasks for the co-op students. Originally, I saw it as a useful introduction to the qualities of a good TA, which I hoped my co-op students would emulate. Having used it for several years, I now see it as a far more valuable tool. It helped me know more about my co-op students as they shared a bit about what they valued and their interests, and it helped me tweak my training based on their feedback. Throughout the term, I could integrate what they had shared into other training sessions to help make a connection between what they had experienced and what they were learning now.

Of course, making these connections is much easier when you are training 10 co-op students compared with teaching in a 250-seat lecture hall. The first class I taught at UW was held in DC 1351. It was on Monday afternoons and there were ~200 students on any given day. While I got to know some of my students, I could probably only name a quarter of the class. I had very little interaction with those near the back and I am quite sure there was at least one student asleep in the back row. Compared to my previous teaching experience, where my biggest class had less than 50 students, it felt so impersonal.

Slowly, things improved. After teaching the course a couple times, I developed a better sense of what needed more time in lecture and what students grasped quickly. I became more comfortable working in that lecture environment. In another large class I taught, I developed strategies to get to know students a bit more, such as asking them to introduce themselves on our class discussion board. Nothing too onerous – just a few lines about themselves and why they were taking the course. The online introduction enabled me to read each one and to learn a little more about my students.

For me, opportunities to create these connections are important. Clearly, the level of connection varies greatly among students. Some are quite content to be left alone and prefer the anonymity of a large class. For others, it can lead to a more enriched learning experience. Knowing more about my students has helped make large classes work for me. I would love to hear what you are doing to facilitate learning in your large classes. I am very excited to join the CTE team and I look forward to working with you!


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

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Veronica Brown

As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum & Quality Enhancement, Veronica Brown provides oversight and facilitative support for departmental and Faculty-wide curriculum planning initiatives. She also leads the development and implementation of the Centre’s assessment plan for understanding the impact and quality of our work.

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